In Beans There is Gold
By Gianna Volpe
Forget fair trade—Jess Dunne and Jennilee Morris of North Fork Roasting Company in Southold have taken their commitment of better business practices into their own hands. The couple not only quested to their top-selling coffee’s country of origin to work a direct trade agreement with Guatemalan growers during their first year in business, they also got to see a volcano erupt while exploring their caffeine-fueled passions in Antigua.
“We got motorcycles for a couple days because everything is really spread out and you could go left toward the city where the buildings were all colorful and the street was still cobblestone, or you could go up towards the volcano to this avocado farm called ‘Earth Lodge’ where they do yoga, have a lot of fresh fruit juices and smoothies, plus they pick avocados straight off the trees to make guac and chips,” Dunne said of the experience. “They say it’s the best view in Antigua and there’s signs on the way that say, ‘You can do it, You’re almost there’ because it’s a hike, but there’s hammocks up there, so you can just lounge and you could see the volcano going off one night, which they said hadn’t happened in a really long time…”
This opportunity of a lifetime was uncovered by the hip North Fork roastery’s general manager, Brianna Paige, while researching volunteer projects and was coordinated through De La Gente, the organization that ultimately matched the two East Enders with a group of Guatemalan growers known as the San Miguel Escobar Cooperative. This small group of farmers use the same processing facility and crowd-sell their coffee to meet the international demand for high quality small-batch beans. One man’s entire annual crop was sold only half a summer ago at the one-year-old North Fork coffee shop affectionately known as ‘NoFoRoCo,’ which puts into perspective how challenging and time-consuming the product is to grow, pick and process.
“It’s a tremendous amount of labor for very little money,” Morris said on the subject. “We need to get these farmers more money…[The Gonzalez family] produces 10 bags per year and we bought out [Julio Gonzalez’] entire crop. That’s his entire year of work, which begins with him planting seeds, waiting for them to mature and grow, taking care of them and then—after growing good cherries [inside of which a coffee bean lies]—hand-harvesting the plants because the cherries all ripen at different times. It’s like a cluster of grapes that don’t ripen at the same time, so you can’t just snip them off. You have to physically pick each one.”
Factoring into the equation such elements as severe sun exposure, spiders, soot falling onto the coffee from the nearby volcano—and the fact that one unripe bean among 56 can potentially spoil an entire batch—illustrates how serious successful small-batch growers are about their jobs, a trait Morris said is common among coffee growers, who call the product, “Cafe Oro.”
“I asked why they call it ‘gold coffee’ and was told it’s because everyone there lives off of it,” said Morris, recalling how she and Dunne had to tromp down a mountainside any time they’d filled their hip basket with enough cherries at Julio Gonzalez’s farm to run the stuff through a de-pulper, which ultimately reveals the coffee bean inside.
“The work ethic is insane,” said Dunne.
“Julio works for his father Monday to Friday and works on his own farm during the weekends…You could tell he takes care of his little sisters and that they’re all trying to make money for their one household. The mom was selling vegetables, the brother was cutting hair and they had all their coffee dried out…”
The Southold local was so inspired by the hardworking people she met in Guatemala that she ultimately made a portrait series featuring them, several of which can be found hanging on the walls at the Main Road coffeehouse.
Though less than one-quarter of a bag currently remains from NoFoRoCo’s first direct trade with the San Miguel Escobar Cooperative, both Dunne and Morris are sure it won’t be their last.
“Guatemalan coffee is probably our number one coffee because it’s in two of our blends,” said Morris. “So we’re going to keep working with these farmers and bring in lots more from them.”